Standards, Testing & Accountability

The SNL edition

Common Core in the suburbs, the highest high school graduation rate ever, our international education gap, and a comparison of the MCAS and PARCC assessments.

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: “Educating Students for Success: A Comparison of the MCAS and PARCC Assessments as Indicators of College- and Career-Readiness,” Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (February 2015).


Michelle:            Hello, this is your host, Michelle Lerner of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, here at the Education Gadfly Show and online at, and now please join me in welcoming my co-host, the Amy Poehler of education reform, Alyssa Schwenk.

Alyssa:            Why thank you, Tina Fey.

Michelle:            Oh, why thank you!

Alyssa:            Did you watch SNL?

Michelle:            Of course. I even watched it live ...

Alyssa:            Okay, just checking.

Michelle:            ... which means I stayed up very late.

Alyssa:            That is way past your bedtime.

Michelle:            I know. It's a few hours, in fact. It ended and I immediately shut off the lights to go to sleep because I was that tired.

Alyssa:            I will actually cop to, I watched it the next day during the daytime hours.

Michelle:            We're switching roles, here!

Alyssa:            We're clearly influencing each other.

Michelle:            Okay, favorite take-aways?

Alyssa:            Well, obviously I loved seeing all of the old cast members. I also recently finished or am almost done reading ...

Michelle:            Of course you are.

Alyssa:            ... I never finish books, but "Live From New York", the oral history of Saturday Night Live. It was really cool to ...

Michelle:            I think I'm going to have to read that.

Alyssa:            It's very good.

Michelle:            I'll put it on my GoodReads.

Alyssa:            It's a good book. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a new book to read. It was really cool to see the older cast members. I never really watched the older episodes, never really saw the '70s, '80s, really only started watching probably ten years ago. It was cool to see the older skits.

Michelle:            My parents loved SNL and so when SNL put out all the videos and DVDs of the old skits, I watched them as a kid. Dana Carvey is my favorite. I love him as Bush Sr., and I was just so happy to see that Eddie Murphy showed up.

Alyssa:            Came back, yes.

Michelle:            Considering he never talks about SNL, I was kind of hoping he'd do a skit.

Alyssa:            Or at least the Gumby impression.

Michelle:            Oh, Mr. Rogers. There are so many good and inappropriate skits. I love it, but from SNL to ed reform, let's play “Pardon the Gadfly.”

Alyssa:            Fordham president, Mike Petrilli argues that Common Core works for most parents, even progressive, anti-test moms and dads in the suburbs. Will these folks be convinced?

Michelle:            No.

Alyssa:            Yeah, no.

Michelle:            I feel like, okay, I grew up in the suburbs. I'm hoping I don't end up in the suburbs, but I feel like ...

Alyssa:            Where are you house hunting again?

Michelle:            Okay, Arlington is not the suburbs.

Alyssa:            The suburbs.

Michelle:            Yeah. I feel like it's kind of in my destiny to be a suburban mom. I will never, mark my words, drive a minivan. In 10 to 15 years you can track me down and see if I'm driving a minivan.

Alyssa:            Okay, I will actually put that on my calendar for 2030: "Track down Michelle Lerner. Is she driving a minivan?"

Michelle:            Yeah, and the answer will be, "No." Anyway, I think the thing about education is there are lots of things that every kid receives, and it's for your kid but it's also for the other kid, the kid you don't know. I think it's really important to understand that Common Core and the assessments, which is what this is really about ...

Alyssa:            A big part of it.

Michelle:            ... it's not about your kid. It's about all kids. Checker has written about this in the past, and he said, "You know, testing is not about little Johnny. It's about all the little Johnny's out there in all the cities in all the states and all of that." I think we need to keep that in mind. I think this is a huge issue with Common Core and ed reform. I think messaging wise and policy wise, we would be wise not to cut out the suburban parents, but I think overall Common Core is actually good for all kids.

Alyssa:            Yeah. I do think something to keep I mind too is that the implementation matters, and if Common Core can be implemented well in high performing suburban districts, than yes, they're on board. Our report Common Core in the Districts found that teachers are, you know, the first source of buy-in and if you get the teachers on board, you can get the parents on board. I think focusing on implementation is a way that we can really reach these parents.

                        A lot of it is, you can incorporate Common Core into good instruction, high quality, developmentally appropriate instruction, and so keeping that at the forefront I think is critical for these parents, but I think it's going to be a tough sell at this point.

Michelle:            But I also think, to counter argue what we just, what I literally just argued, because this is what I do, what Mike's post talked about and our What Parents Want report found when we released that last year or the year before, it all molds together, is that in general, parents actually want the same thing. Common Core delivers on those same things, which is a high quality ... Well, parents want high quality curricula. Standards would hopefully deliver a good curricula. This should please suburban parents.

Alyssa:            Yeah, but whether or not it's being implemented well…

Michelle:            It's implementation every time. Always the implementation! Ugh! On the note of implementation, the most fascinating policy aspect there can be, let's go to question number two.

Alyssa:            Oh yeah. The high school graduation rate will soon hit an all time high, good news, surely, but does this raise concerns about college and career readiness?

Michelle:            Yes.

Alyssa:            Also yes.

Michelle:            We're agreeing again.

Alyssa:            Mike's going to hate this.

Michelle:            Whomp, whomp. Maybe we have more disagreement on SNL, even though that, too, is awesome. Yeah, I think this is, it's a good thing but it's also a bad thing. Yes, we want more kids graduation high school. We want a lot of them going on to college and being successful there or getting a really great career. The concern that's always there is, are we graduating students to up our graduation rate or are we graduating students at the level that they need to be in order to have a high school diploma?

Alyssa:            I think having the diploma, having the credential is important particularly for kids who are at risk or maybe not doing so hot in high school. Graduating high school, I think is important for them in the future, but right now there's still troubling gaps between states. Iowa, where I grew up and graduated high school, had a 90 percent graduation rate, but DC had a 62 percent graduation rate. There is still a lot of variance. There is still gaps between high income and low income students, and I think the important thing is, a we go into Common Core implementation, of course ...

Michelle:            I was waiting to say, isn't Common Core supposed to solve this?

Alyssa:            Yeah. We have to keep the graduation rate high while also turning the screws a little bit on college readiness.

Michelle:            I applaud you for not calling out any specific teachers, perhaps, in Iowa.

Alyssa:            Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I think Mrs. Cox probably still is listening to this. My high school graduation rate, full disclosure, was not the highest in the state. In fact, it was the fifth lowest, which is not necessarily something to put on the bumper sticker, but I checked their 2013 data, and they've upped it by 20 percentage points.

Michelle:            I think we should take this as a step in the right direction, both for your high school in Iowa and for all high schools around the country but we should rest on our laurels.

Alyssa:            Yep, still a lot to do. Question number three. U.S. Millennials, our most educated generation ever, are consistently outscored by international peers in all subjects on international assessments, including problem solving and technology rich environments. What's going on?

Michelle:            Oh, those lazy Millennials.

Alyssa:            This makes me so prickly when we call them Millennials. Anyways, I think this question is a really nice complement, actually, to our second question today, about whether or not the credentials actually mean what we hope their conferring. This report showed a lot of gaps at all levels, including people who are Millennials and have bachelor's degrees. They're either in the lowest or the three lowest scoring in almost all of these dimensions. The earlier study on high school graduation rates, we still have a lot of room here.

Michelle:            I also, I think this is just the story that gets printed every decade. When "A Nation At Risk" was released, what, 31 years ago ...

Alyssa:            And this report quotes it.

Michelle:            ... we said, "Hey, you know, there's a huge problem. We're falling behind our international peers. America is at risk," and all of the things that "A Nation At Risk" said, which is very similar to what we're still saying now. I just read a really great update report from the William T. Grant Foundation, is that right?

Alyssa:            I think I know which report you're referring to and I think it is, yes.

Michelle:            Which was an updated report from the early '80s about the forgotten half, which talks about how in the '80s there was a problem of getting people into college. Now it's a problem of getting people through college. It was a really fascinating report, but the big takeaway, which is not the one they intended, perhaps, was that we keep issuing the same reports every 10, 15, 20 years. Maybe it's not a new problem, it's just the continuation of the same problem.

Alyssa:            It's not, "the last group walked uphill both ways in the snow." It's "we're all walking uphill both ways in the snow." I also think that this report highlights the digital gap. One of the things that people are really focusing on with it is that it looks at problem solving skills in a digitally enhanced environment. Can you use the internet to find out information that you need? What we have in this country is a pretty wide digital divide between high income students who have ready access to it and low income students who do not.

                        When I was teaching, this was three or four years ago, my kids were in the computer lab for two hours a month, sometimes, and that's not enough to really get you to be very literate on the computer. It's not enough to teach you how to use digital resources. I think what this report ultimately highlights is there is a lot of inequality, and that extends to the digital realm.

Michelle:            While I'm not a thousand percent on the digital education is the way to go, I do think, because of all the jobs we have, everyone I know, whether it's a professional job or not, uses computers, uses technology. I really think we need to up this. I have always been a fan of teaching coding to everyone. I don't know any coding and I feel like I'm, all these younger people are smarter than me and I'm feeling left behind and all of those things.

Alyssa:            Snapchat.

Michelle:            Yeah. See, I just learned about YickYak as a new social media thing.

Alyssa:            I'm still confused about YickYak. I think I bring this up about once a week. YickYak confuses me. How to pay things on Snapchat confuses me, and I'm still technically a Millennial, yet all of these things confuse me.

Michelle:            Yeah but Ellen is younger than the both of us and she knows what YickYak is. I heard her talking about it the other day. There's a generational divide within Millenials.

Alyssa:            Yeah. There really, really is.

Michelle:            Actually, Catherine Rampell had a really fascinating column about how we shouldn't group Millennials all together because ...

Alyssa:            Under 24 is much different than older 25, I would venture.

Michelle:            Yeah, it is.

Alyssa:            It's the Snapchat line. Do you Snapchat?

Michelle:            On that note, that's all ... On the Snapchat note, that's all the time we have for Pardon the Gadfly. We'll ask Amber about these very, very interesting social media outlets in a second, in Amber's Research minute.

                        Welcome to the show, Amber.

Amber:            Thank you, Michelle.

Michelle:            Do you know what YickYak is?

Alyssa:            Not to put you on the spot or anything.

Amber:            I do not. I missed the top of the podcast.

Michelle:            We feel like there's a line at age 25. Everyone above it has no idea what YickYak is and doesn't understand how it's used.

Amber:            Oh no.

Michelle:            We don't know what it is really either.

Alyssa:            We were discussing Millennials and technology and segwayed from a very interesting study on how they use it to solve problems to, what the heck is YickYak, which we do not know.

Amber:            Oh, and we do not know. We'll be googling that when we leave the room, I guess.

Michelle:            Possibly or we'll ask one of the interns [crosstalk 00:11:35].

Alyssa:            Using our digital literacy.

Michelle:            What we actually talked about at the top of the podcast was SNL 40th Anniversary. Do you have a favorite skit?

Amber:            Oh nice. Of course! It is "More Cowbell" is my favorite all time.

Alyssa:            Classic.

Michelle:            Yeah, that's everyone's. It's so good.

Alyssa:            It's really good but I'm going to go with the 2008 election coverage. I really am. I've reconsidered.

Michelle:            I just go with Dana Carvey, and everything he did [crosstalk 00:12:01].

Alyssa:            That's also fair.

Amber:            He's awesome. I know. He's awesome.

Michelle:            Yeah, I love that. All right, from SNL to ...

Amber:            Research Minute.

Michelle:            Why not? Perfect transition there.

Amber:            All right. We've got a new study out by Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which is MBAC-, MBAE, sorry about that, that compares the MCAS, which is the Massachusetts state test, and the PARCC, which is the new test coming out. They look at three indicators of college and career readiness. Here are their three indicators and their results.

                        Number one, does the test identify students who are college and career ready? The authors say no for MCAS, since it sets no bar for college and career readiness and its bar for proficient is very low compared to the SAT. They also say that Massachusetts does better overall than other states on NAPE, but they're still below the NAPE college preparedness benchmark, which was a little curious for me, but when you look at a footnote, it reveals not by much.

                        On the 2013 NAPE Grade 12, the MCAS average was 161. The NAPE college preparedness benchmark was 163, so kind of close. Authors say that the PARCC plans to establish a real college and career ready bar.

                        Number two, and I'll speed it up, does the test contain the right content to measure college and career readiness? Authors say MCAS consists of one ELA and math test administered in 10th grade and it's only designed to measure mastery of 10th grade standards, yet PARCC will test high schoolers in these three grades, 9, 10, 11. It's going to assess a broader and deeper array of content. It's going to have more application of skills and concepts and abstract reasoning, so on and so forth.

                        Number three, do the elementary and middle school tests provide good information about student progress towards college and career readiness. Authors say MCAS are a patchwork of tests. They are developed at different times, different purposes, different proficiency standards across the grades, don't appear to be equally rigorous. Yet PARCC has a consistent design, is developed with coherence across grades, so on and so forth.

                        Bottom line, the study was a little presumptuous. We don't have too much information about PARCC quite yet and in so doing, I think it was a little bit more flattering to PARCC than may be warranted at this time. It could have been a little bit more objective, but it did admit at the end that it was kind of like comparing apples and oranges, because the MCAS was not designed to be a college and career ready measure. There you have it.

Michelle:            I was going to say, that's a lot of PARCC love and you don't often hear PARCC love anymore.

Alyssa:            That sounds like an SNL skit.

Amber:            You do not. You do not.

Michelle:            Yeah, and ed reform SNL skit where exactly 500 people would find that interesting or be able to follow it.

Amber:            Yes. You know, I think, let's just be honest. There are people who want Massachusetts to use PARCC and there are people who do not want Massachusetts to use PARCC. This is grist for the mill, I think, in terms of getting people to think about the differences between the two and as our listeners know, Fordham is undergoing a study too, that's going to look at similar questions, in terms of comparing PARCC and Smarter Balance and ACT and MCAS. We're going to use the criteria for high quality assessments that the chiefs put out.

                        It's a totally different study but again, these are important questions. We just need to make sure that we have all the information at our disposal to be able to answer them. Unfortunately, these guys didn't have actual items from PARCC yet, which we'll have, which is important, but again, I think the point is, yes, tests are designed for different purposes.

Michelle:            That's the whole point of doing Common Core. Well, one of the points was to change the tests. No matter whether we or anyone else finds how PARCC and Smarter are, it will always be apples to oranges, because we changed something. That's the whole point. Fascinating.

Amber:            Yeah, it's fascinating. A lot of these groups that are going to come out, I think, as these tests roll out and there are these various factions that kind of think, "This is the direction we need to go." I'm all about more evaluation, more studies, more information, the better.

Alyssa:            Shocking better research. Vice President would say that.

Amber:            Yes.

Michelle:            It's like whenever I read any given research study, it's like, "And more research is needed on this." Someone once asked me if I thought every organization should have a communications person, and I wanted to be like, "Of course, I think I'm integral to our work here."

Alyssa:            At the same time, I do think as more evaluations come on board and as more people get farther down this path, having this information and keeping this conversation going is critical.

Amber:            Yes, that's right. I think this report brought out some broad level difference between them, but it was really hard to answer these three questions right without real data and real items and really digging in to these tests in a way that a report like this wasn't able to do.

Michelle:            I'm excited to see the differences between Smarter and PARCC.

Amber:            Yes.

Alyssa:            Yes.

Michelle:            That is ...

Amber:            Is what our study will look at.

Michelle:            Yes.

Amber:            Indeed.

Michelle:            All right. Thanks so much, Amber.

Amber:            Yes, ma'am.

Michelle:            That's all the time we have for this week's Gadfly Show. Till next week ...

Alyssa:            I'm Alyssa Schwenk.

Michelle:            And I'm Michelle Lerner for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, signing off.

Last week, writer Laura McKenna took to the Atlantic to try to understand why some suburban moms (yes, many of them white) have turned against the Common Core. She settles on misinformation as a driving force, which is certainly a factor. For example, if these parents understood that their own local schools still have complete control over curriculum and textbooks, perhaps they wouldn’t be so frustrated with standards set so far away.

But this is still an unsatisfactory answer. My own sense from watching this debate play out is that many of the “white suburban moms” who oppose Common Core also share a romantic, progressive view of education that is at odds with traditional schooling in general. We will never convince them of Common Core’s value, nor should we expect to. Instead, we should allow them to opt their kids out of traditional public schools and into schools (including charters) that are proudly progressive.

This conclusion is informed by a groundbreaking study we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published in 2013, What Parents Want: Education Preferences and Trade-Offs. Its major (and surprising) finding was that most parents actually want pretty much the same things from...

A report last month from a pair of advocacy organizations, the Alliance for Childhood and Defending the Early Years, argued that “there is a widespread belief that teaching children to read early will help them be better readers in the long-run,” but that there is “no scientific evidence that this is so.” The Washington Post and its Common Core-averse education blogger, Valerie Strauss, have been particularly aggressive in highlighting this report and running pieces from both parents and teachers arguing that “forcing some kids to read before they are ready could be harmful.”

The report, titled Reading in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose sounds an alarm over a perceived shift “from play-based, experiential approaches to more academic approaches” in early-childhood classrooms starting in the 1980s. “Under the Common Core State Standards (CCSS),” the authors claim, “the snowball has escalated into an avalanche which threatens to destroy appropriate and effective approaches to early education.”

The authors make much of the fact that no one involved with writing the standards was a K–3 teacher or early-childhood professional. The more important issue, however, isn’t who wrote it,...

Student learning gains ought to be a component of teacher evaluations. Measures such as value added are a useful and important complement to classroom observations. But not all models are created equal, as illustrated by a new lawsuit in Tennessee that reveals a rather preposterous policy.

Last week, the Volunteer State’s largest teacher union sued the state in federal court over a law that ties student test scores to evaluations of educators who teach such non-core subjects as art, French, and gym. Teachers in Tennessee receive annual scores between one and five, with five being best. Those scores determine all manner of high-stakes administrative decisions affecting teachers, including bonuses, termination, and tenure. Approximately half of the metric is based on classroom observations, the rest on student test scores. For a teacher in a core subject such as math, and in a grade in which students are tested, this model makes sense. The bulk of the test-based portion of her rating is based on how well her students do on the math portions of the state’s standardized tests. That’s rational. A smaller portion, 15 percent, is based on “school-wide” performance—how well all the schools’ students do in all subjects tested....

Recent days have brought several thoughtful commentaries on results-based accountability in K-12 education, why it’s important, what it’s accomplished and why it needs to continue.

Such attention is exceptionally timely, as the negotiations presently underway between Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray in pursuit of a bipartisan formula for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind will inevitably devote much attention to the issues surrounding school (and teacher) accountability.

Like Mike Petrilli, I’m convinced that this can no longer be managed from Washington. Like Mike, I’m also convinced that accountability for results in K–12 education must continue. Losing it would carry us back to the pre-Coleman era when schools were judged not by their results but by their inputs, promises, and services, and teachers were evaluated by brief classroom visits from supervisors who arrived with no data, no rubrics—and no ability to do anything about problematic instructors. (Alas, that last shortage remains the norm, as does the practice of finding just about every teacher satisfactory, if not outstanding.)

The only thing that really matters about a school (or teacher)—beyond such basics as children’s safety—is whether kids are learning there. If they’re not, something must be done to change the situation....

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has produced a three-minute video looking at the purpose of assessments. With the ongoing debate about testing (even in this issue of Gadfly), it’s easy to forget why it’s important.



Like Moses in the wilderness, state policymakers have to cope with incessant grumbling—in their case over standardized testing. Last year, Ohio legislators compromised on testing and accountability, including delaying the implementation of Ohio’s new school report cards, waiving the consequences for poor performance in the 2014–15 school year, ditching the Algebra II end-of-course exam, and tweaking the teacher evaluation system by allowing schools to reduce the weight of the test-based accountability measure.

As the new General Assembly gears up in 2015, lawmakers will face even greater pressure to water down testing and accountability. Already, two high-priority bills have been introduced with provisions that, if passed, would further weaken Ohio’s new testing and accountability framework. The first provision is a test-time cap; the second is a delay on the stakes associated with Ohio’s new high school tests. Both provisions, while politically popular and seemingly insignificant, are flawed and should be rejected.

Test-time caps

Senate Bill 3 is designed to identify areas ripe for deregulation in education—a needed and overdue endeavor. Some of the recommendations in the bill are sound, like eliminating the needless third-grade test given in the fall. But one recommendation is a hard cap...

The 2015 legislative session is gearing up, and Common Core will again feature prominently in the education agenda. Longtime Core opponent Representative Andy Thompson told the Plain Dealer to "count on" another repeal attempt, and new House education committee chair Bill Hayes has said that he expects Common Core to continue to be a source of debate. Hayes has acknowledged the importance of high standards and local control and has pledged to “have an open ear and give everyone a fair hearing.” While the prospect of even more testimony may leave many wary of another months-long circus, continued civil discourse—from both sides of an issue—is what makes our democracy work. (It’s also a Common Core standard, for the record.)

So before the debate begins anew, let’s revisit what we learned from the many hours of testimony, media coverage, and debate that occurred in 2014.

Lesson One: There is widespread support for Common Core

It’s no secret that Common Core support in Ohio has been diverse and widespread from the start. Various newspapers have spotlighted Ohioans who support Common Core. The business community has been a staunch supporter. The governor has...

New York City’s Independent Budget Office (IBO) has released an updated Schools Brief which makes a few important tweaks to an earlier analysis of attrition rates for charters and traditional public schools. The original study followed students from kindergarten through third grade, ending in 2012–13; the additional data is for 2013–14, when most of the students were in fourth grade. Two of the major findings in the original report have not changed significantly: 1) On average, charter school students remain at their schools at a higher rate than their traditional school counterparts (64 percent vs. 56 percent after four years); and 2) students at charters and traditional schools leave the New York City public school system at the same rate. The first finding is good news to charter school advocates in New York, since recent research suggests that student retention is one factor in overall charter improvement. But the second finding should worry public-education supporters and city officials alike. Between transient populations whose needs (both educational and otherwise) are not being met and families leaving the city’s public schools entirely for parts unknown, it is clear that many students are simply not staying in New York City...

It’s fascinating—and telling—how rapidly the zillion issues tucked away in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act have been distilled down to arguments about testing.

There’s been almost no discussion, at least in places where I look, about Titles II through X of the 2002 (NCLB) version, and most of Title I’s myriad provisions seem also to have been set aside while people argue over the future of annual testing.

The new House bill would retain that requirement, and Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, though declaring himself open-minded on the subject, seems to be moving closer toward keeping it.

Testing is of course controversial in its own right. Many people think there’s too much of it and that it’s getting in the way of teaching and learning. I’ve come to view annual testing of kids in reading and math, and the disaggregating and public reporting of their performance at the school (and district) level, as the single best feature of NCLB and the one that most needs preserving. Indeed, I wish the testing requirement extended below third grade and above eighth, and that it was as demanding for science and history as for reading...